New Gardening method takes root in Baka al-Gharbiya

Hydroponic gardening uses no soil, instead growing plants in a solution of water and nutrients

Nadaf, 65, (center) remembers the hard life her father had farming their land when she was a child and now grows crops through hydroponic gardening (photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
Nadaf, 65, (center) remembers the hard life her father had farming their land when she was a child and now grows crops through hydroponic gardening
(photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
From her property at the edge of on the nothern Arab-Israeli town of Baka al-Gharbiya, where Ensherah Nadaf lives with her three sons and their families, she can look down on the plot of land which belonged to her grandfather and her father after him, and where she spent many happy days of her childhood, tagging along behind her father as he tended to his crops.
“It is so different between then and now,” says Nadaf, 65, a recently retired school librarian and teacher. “My father and grandfather had 60 dunams of land in Baka, they used to grow watermelons, beans and okra. We were little. We would behind them for fun.”
Today Baka (the shortened form of the town’s name) is a far cry from the agricultural village it was back then, with its busy streets lined with high-end clothing stores, restaurants, bakeries, modern home furnishing stores and supermarkets and with its urban sprawl and a population of almost 30,000 people, it can sometimes take up to 45 minutes to drive from one of town to the other. No one farms anymore, says Nadaf.
But recently, together with a group of four other women Nadaf participated in a course in hydroponic gardening sponsored by Workers Advice Center WAC-MAAN and Sindyanna of Galilee, a women-led nonprofit that promotes fair trade and “business for peace,” and over the past weeks she has been enjoying the vegetables she tended, with lettuce, celery, mint and parsley growing outside her home in the special tubes used for the hydroponic method of gardening.
That means she did not plant her vegetables in soil, but rather is growing them in water.
Hydroponic gardening uses no soil, instead growing plants in a solution of water and nutrients. Because the plants do not need to grow extensive root systems to obtain the nutrients they need, they can be packed together closely making it suitable to use where less space is available. Its proponents maintain that plants in hydroponic systems can grow from 20% to three times as fast as crops grown by conventional methods. The system also uses less water because the reservoirs used to contain the water are enclosed and the whole system sealed preventing evaporation and allowing the plants to take only the water they need.
“If my father was here and he could see my garden, he would wonder where the soil is,” Nadaf chuckles. “My father didn’t have any water in his land. It was a hard life. Today nobody wants to be a farmer but with this (hydroponic) way it is easier and I can see all this amazing green (plants) just outside my door.”
The brain-child of environmental activist and community garden coordinator and community worker Sehrab Msarwi, the hydroponic gardening project grew out of her desire to improve the environment in Baka, and to connect residents to nature, and along the way reconnecting them with their agricultural roots.
Msarwi learned about the hydroponic system years ago through the nonprofit Association for Urban Farming and fell in love with the method and decided to bring it to her city. Her first foray into using the method was at her mother’s kindergarten. When she saw the success she was having with the children she turned to the local WAC-MAAN office for cooperation to bring the project to a wider group of people.
“I understood that if I could succeed with this project with the young children, I could succeed with the whole community,” says Msarwi.
Out of 10 women who came to listen to a presentation by Msarwi on hydroponic gardening, five signed up for a seven-week workshop which taught them how to set up their own systems and the basic principles of the method.
In October 2019, each graduate received a hydroponic system consisting of four pipes, a pump and an acid meter, and in November they already began eating their own homegrown starchy vegetables, lettuce, mint, parsley, basil, arugula, peppers, coriander and celery.
“What is important with this method is that it doesn’t need large areas of land to create the garden,” says Wafa Tayara, responsible for women’s development projects at WAC-MAAN. “There also isn’t enough water in the country and with this method of gardening we save on a lot of water and the plants grow three times as fast as they do in soil.”
The fact that they are grown without soil, also means there are less insects so less chemical insecticides are needed, she added. Mostly they use organic solutions such as vinegar and baking soda to contend with the pests. The system is also relatively easy to use once it is set up requiring periodic checks on the acidity of the water, whether or not water has evaporated and to make sure the pump is working.
“Now that we have finished the first workshop, a lot more women are interested in joining and learning,” says Msarwi. In December she started the second workshop, with the first graduates helping the new students and demonstrating how the method works with the hydroponic systems they set up at their homes.
Growing organic vegetables at home not only can help the women contribute to their household’s livelihoods by the women becoming producers rather than just consumers, Msarwi says, but it also encourages a clean and healthy environment and, eventually could also provide additional income for the women if the project is expanded as planned to create a hydroponic gardening cooperative which would allow the women to grow enough vegetables to sell to others. Marwa Ghaniem, 42, lives in a multi-level building and used a movable stand for her vegetables on a large balcony.
“I also have potted plants and I could compare the growth pattern between what is planted in soil and what was grown with the hydroponic method,” she said. “I am having a romance with my hydroponic system. I can grow vegetables without chemicals and using less water and this way I am caring for the environment. It is nice to sit there on my balcony and see all the green. I sit there and drink my coffee.”
What she loves most though, she says, is the ability to take the amount of leaves and vegetables she needs while leaving the rest of the plant in the system. There is a lot less waste of food that way, she said.
“We used to buy these things in big bunches and they would spoil in the refrigerator. Now when I want mint for my tea, I take a few leaves and the rest continues to grow,” she says. “We don’t have any land now, but I want to see green (plants) growing by the work of my hands.”
Her grandmother, who spent most of her life farming, was surprised to see how the lettuce grew so quickly in three weeks, says Ghaniem.
“For my grandparents it was such physical work, going out in the morning, weeding the fields, tending the soil, coming back home in the evening,” she says.
She says she has included her children in her gardening, and they help her check the roots and the plants. Her four-year-old daughter has especially become fascinated by the process, she says.
“In today’s society children want everything to happen immediately. This has shown her how to be responsible and patient,” says Ghaniem.
The participants were also exposed to concepts of conservation and sustainability, and some said following the course they began to act more environmentally responsible by reusing plastic bags, and stopped using plastic bottles and disposable plates and cups. The women keep in touch and consult each other and Msarwi through a Whatsapp group and have also joined other hydroponic social media groups for support and advice.
But in the end the project is not just a gardening course, says WAC-MAAN’s Tayara. Now the women are thinking ahead, about other ways they can help and use their newly acquired skills to improve the dietary culture, household economy and environmental awareness in their community. With studies showing an alarming high rate of diabetes among middle-aged Arab women in Israel – one study by Zahi Sa’id, Counsel for Arab Society, Clalit Health Services, found that 70% of Arab women over 55 are overweight with 35% of the women in that age group additionally having diabetes – re-learning proper nutritional habits is vital for maintaining good health, she says.
“All these things are interconnected. We can’t look at one subject and ignore the others. We want to still follow our traditions, using new technology which helps care for the environment. We want people to cooperate with each other,” she says. “We want to take women who will be leaders in society, and who will be ambassadors in this place and make deep changes in our society.”